Eshleman Leaves Legacy of Profound Laughter

Lee Eshleman

The simple props were in place, lighting and sound were ready and a final run through had taken place earlier in the day for “Live at Jacob’s Ladder,” a musical written by and starring Ted Swartz and Lee Eshleman with composer Ken Medema.

But, the performances scheduled for May 18 and 19 at Eastern Mennonite High School didn’t go on.

Late in the afternoon on afternoon May 17, Lee Eshleman, 43, lost a long struggle with depression and took his life at his Harrisonburg home. He leaves his wife Reagan and children Nicolas, Sarah and Gabe, extended family members and countless friends and fan around the world.

“It feels like there’s a piece of me missing,” said Swartz. “When two appear on the public stage, it diffuses responsibility. There’s a shared attention. Something magical happened in those settings. I think how fortunate we were to have had each other.”

Humble Beginnings

The nearly 20-year-run of the dramatic duo Ted and Lee began inauspiciously enough at Spruce Lake Retreat in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Swartz, then a student in his early 30s at Eastern Mennonite University, had prepared a series of comedy sketches for a youth leaders gathering at the Franconia Mennonite Conference-sponsored camp.

He wrote the material for two persons, and at the last minute, his partner backed out.

Then EMU president Joseph L. Lapp introduced him to Eshleman, a 1986 art graduate of the university who worked part time in the school’s print shop and did graphic design work for EMU.

Eshleman agreed to accompany Swartz to Spruce Lake, where their performances met with enthusiastic response. “You guys must have worked together for a long time,” was a recurring comment afterwards. A friendship formed the fall of 1987 evolved into a dramatic partnership, “Ted and Lee Theaterworks.” They began doing comedy sketches that expanded to a full-length production, “The Armadillo Tour.”

Their repertoire broadened to center on works based on biblical characters and events, including “Fish-Eyes,” a dramatic portrayal of two of Christ’s disciples, Peter and Andrew, and “Creation Chronicles,” a fresh look at the book of Genesis.

‘Tender and Kind’

They teamed up with actress Ingrid DeSanctis to a Christmas show called “DoveTale,” presented hundreds of times over the last 10 years.

“Lee taught me to be funny, but beyond that he was so tender and kind, like a brother,” said DeSanctis, currently of Orlando, Fla., where she teaches the arts in a Latino community and is an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida. “When Lee walked into a room, so much light followed. I was privileged to work on stage with him.”

Ted & Lee performed regularly at retreats and conferences for just about every denomination and were featured performers at national events including DC/LA (for students) and Youth Specialties’ National Youth Workers Conventions. They were scheduled to debut a new production at the biennial general assembly of Mennonite Church USA the first week of July in San Jose, Calif.

Church Roots

Although on the road for weeks at a time, Eshleman remained an active member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, where he and Swartz freely shared their creative gifts in worship settings and at the variety show at the church’s annual fall retreat.

On the church’s “Education Sunday” May 5 this year, the duo were part of a special music ensemble that incorporated the names of all 180 children in the congregation.

Although he admitted to some apprehension at doing improvisation, Eshleman was a master of the one-liner, pun and off-the-wall rejoinder. One Sunday at Community, just as he and Swartz were about to do a sketch to introduce the worship theme, the church’s public address system cut loose with screeching feedback. Eshleman looked around and said, “Jimi Hendrix is here.”

Family and Friends Mourn

Eshleman was born Aug. 28, 1963, in Richmond, Va., the son of J. Robert and Rosalie Hartman Eshleman of Midlothian, Va., who survive. Also surviving are a brother, Curtis Eshleman and wife Brigetta Nilsen Eshleman of Lynchburg, Va., a paternal grandmother, Arlene Eshleman of Indiana; and three nieces.

A waiting line out the door of Lindsay Funeral Home and down the sidewalk at a family visitation the evening of May 20 bore testimony to the many lives Eshleman touched. Some 800 mourners attended his memorial service held May 21 at Eastern Mennonite University. A private burial was held at Eastlawn Memorial Gardens in Harrisonburg earlier in the day.

“Lee loved wrapping laughter around magical moments of God’s grace and presence – he also loved ‘Squirrel Reunions’ and spews,” Swartz said at the memorial service. “He was gifted greatly, flawed greatly, he was greatly human, and he was greatly loved by God and by so many in the world.”

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Many people have asked what they can do to help Lee